"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

On "The Experience of God" by David Bentley Hart: Part 1 of 3

Prompted by Jerry Coyne’s critiques of David Bentley Hart’s latest book The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss I have bought my own copy as it is apparently the latest sophisticated argument for God that atheists now have to refute in order to qualify for the right to an opinion on the subject.

As others have pointed out it seems unfair that for theists to criticise scientific rebuttals of religion they rarely see the need to actually understand the science but for an atheist to criticise religion requires an encyclopaedic knowledge of two millennia of theology. But what the hell! I quite like acquiring knowledge for its own sake and have a fair grasp of both theology and science so I have decided to post my own thoughts on this latest ‘best argument for God’.
As Hart’s sub-title implies the book is split into three divisions; Being (the existential question, essentially the cosmological argument), consciousness (or why the “hard problem” of consciousness points to God) and Bliss (The experiential evidence). I intend this to be a series of three posts addressing each in turn starting with Being

In one respect the disappointment of this part of the book is that it really offers nothing new. Hart’s argument is essentially a re-hash of Paul Tillich’s “ground of being” concept where God is defined as that upon which all else is contingent, although I think Hart’s explanation and derivation is much more cogently explained than many with less resort to post-modernist language and obfuscation (I do mean less by the way, not none: there is still plenty of semi-digestible word salad in this book). He begins by asserting that materialism is a self-limiting philosophy that science uses necessarily to render the observable universe available for comprehension while ignoring the philosophical dilemma of why anything requiring investigation exists at all. The logical consequence of this is that everything is seen as a sequence of causes and effects leading to infinite regressions if you try to contemplate the “first cause” of anything. He extends the argument to say that explanations relying on mathematical imperatives fail the same test as they must also be contingent on something absolute as would an infinite multiverse or any appeal to the anthropic principle to explain why the universe is as we find it.
Hart goes on to explain that his refined cosmological argument requires an eternal infinite indivisible prime cause that doesn’t initiate creation at a specific point or occupy Einsteinian space-time in any way. Meaning it can’t be observed because science only looks inside the system and ignores external supernatural explanations (which is a general claim I have addressed before).
My problem with all of this really boils down to “so what”? Apart from the fact that such arguments have been made for centuries even if such a ground of being does exist (and I am prepared to concede that it might, or even logically must) why call this thing God? In fact why call it anything at all if it is essentially beyond our capacity to observe and the universe cannot possibly look other than it does either with or without it?
My favourite sound-bite response to the question “why is there something instead of nothing?” is to suggest that there is only one way for there to be nothing yet an almost infinite number of ways for there to be something so the balance of probability is massively in favour of something. I’ve always considered this to be a trivial thought but Hart does take the time to argue against it by saying that an “empty universe” is merely a logical possibility and not a logical necessity in the way that his prime cause of being is and anyway there may be many logically possible empty universes: but this wrong. While there may be many logically possible empty universes there really can only be one way for there to be nothing (whatever that means) even assuming it is logically possible at all. It may be that something is the default due to the logical impossibility of nothing.
It is unsatisfying (even for a materialist) to say it’s “turtles all the way down” but this doesn’t mean that any ground of being ,even if metaphysical, must possess divinity or intent and even less that it has specific opinions on the dietary and sexual habits of humans, which leads me to this final observation…
In a substantial diversion from the initial theme of “being” Hart makes the point that the God he is attempting to describe and justify is not a small ‘g’ god or the demiurge of the Old Testament who created a universe from pre-existing chaos but one that’s very much the ex-nihilo be-all and end-all of existence. But, given that he is explicitly aiming this book at atheists he appears to have missed the memo that for the most part it is only the existence of the demiurges that we are denying. After all it is these theistic gods that are supposed to answer prayers and wreak punishments with careless abandon on human kind. These are the gods for which not only is there no evidence but substantial evidence against even though these are also the gods that, despite Hart’s conviction, most naïve believers look to for moral guidance and salvation. Hart, at least in part one of this book, is flirting with something very close to pantheism which really does not square with his professed Eastern Orthodox Christianity and he fails to make the qualitative leap between god in the abstract and a God we should care about.

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